It’d be harder to find a higher-profile October NFL signing than Le’Veon Bell’s addition by the Chiefs in 2020. But sometimes since then, it’s hard to find Bell on the field.
Kansas City made the move to pick Bell up after his noisy release from the Jets. It added another weapon for Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid to work with, especially with running back Damien Williams opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. But Bell didn’t become a mighty all-purpose back the way he’d been in his early Steelers days.
In nine regular season games with the Chiefs, Bell carried 63 times for 254 yards and two scores, adding 13 catches for 99 yards. He worked behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire whenever the rookie from LSU has been healthy, and even when Edwards-Helaire missed the Chiefs’ divisional round game, Darrel Williams got more backfield work than Bell.
In a lot of ways, it’s easy to see now that Bell’s transcendent 2014 and 2016 seasons are a long time in the past. The Chiefs were never going to be his team. He just didn’t hurt to bring on board.
Why Le’Veon Bell didn’t unseat rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire
The Chiefs were as high on Edwards-Helaire as anyone. They made him the first running back off the board in the 2020 NFL Draft with the 32nd and final pick of the first round. Before Damien Williams opted out, it looked like it’d be a time share at most for the rookie, but the opt out pushed Edwards-Helaire into a huge role right from the outset.
For the most part, Edwards-Helaire showed why the Chiefs wanted him. At 5-7, he’s a powerful, low-to-the-ground runner who also displays skills as a pass-catcher for Mahomes. In Week 1, on the season’s opening night, Edwards-Helaire ran 25 times for 138 yards and a touchdown. He ran 26 times for 161 yards against the Bills in Week 6. Not every week was perfect for the rookie, but he supplied the right kind of supplement to a Mahomes-led offense.
Edwards-Helaire averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 8.3 yards per reception across the entirety of his rookie season. Bell hadn’t hit those marks since 2016 and 2014, respectively. In 15 games with the Jets last year, Bell averaged 3.2 yards per carry and 7.0 yards per catch. Even if you assume a slight positive regression joining a much better team, why would the Chiefs give an aging veteran like Bell, signed to a one-year contract, more work than their highly touted rookie?
Bell’s best shot at unseating Edwards-Helaire, to whatever extent that was a possibility, came in Week 15 when Bell ran 15 times for 62 yards and a touchdown while Edwards-Helaire carried 14 times for 79 yards. Even then, though, Bell’s additional touches came after Edwards-Helaire got hurt, and he wasn’t as efficient as the rookie, anyway.
Even before Bell signed with Kansas City, he knew whose backfield it was. Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy told The Kansas City Star, “Le’Veon reached out to Clyde and had a conversation with him and told him basically, ‘I don’t want to step on your toes; I want to know if you’re OK with me coming in here.'”
No toes were stepped on, because Edwards-Helaire kept control of the Chiefs’ backfield.
Why Le’Veon Bell gets less touches than Darrel Williams
What may have been more shocking for Bell fans is that he took a back seat to Darrell Williams in the 2021 divisional round against the Browns. Edwards-Helaire had yet to return from his Week 15 ankle and hip injuries, so Bell potentially would feature in Kansas City’s 2021 postseason opener. Instead, though, it was Williams leading the way.
Bell received just two carries which he turned into six yards, and he didn’t catch either of his two targets. Williams carried 13 times for 78 yards and caught four passes for 16 yards.
Williams, another back out of LSU like Edwards-Helaire, went undrafted in 2018. He’s only received 93 career NFL carries, but the 25-year old was Reid and Bieniemy’s choice to fill in most for Edwards-Helaire in the playoffs.Williams hasn’t been as efficient a rusher in his career, at 3.8 yards per carry, although he was a career-best 4.3 yards per carry this season. His 8.6 yards per catch in his career is better even than Edwards-Helaire was as a rookie, making him a solid receiving weapon for Mahomes, too.
The divisional round totals for Williams for both rushing yards and receptions were higher than Bell had in any game this season.
“Listen, it was just the hot hand,” Reid said after the Chiefs’ win. “Le’Veon (Bell) has done everything we’ve asked him to do and he’s a great kid, man, love the kid. You just get into these and you kind of go with what’s working, and for whatever reason, Darrel (Williams) was working. Listen, I’m proud of him too because he’s never hung his head, even when he was third and fourth, he just keeps going. He’s not maybe a household name, but maybe after this game, people will know him and respect the work that he does. He’s a very intelligent football player and he plays, as you saw, a very physical game.”
Reid’s usage of the “hot hand” term suggests Bell could still be the leading man in the Chiefs’ quest to the Super Bowl. But he almost certainly won’t be living up to to the high-profile nature of his October move from the Jets to Kansas City.